Let's dispense with the disclosure right away - Melissa Kantor, the author of this, the first Amanda Project book, is an old friend of my husband's. Am I letting that influence my review? Absolutely not. Did that influence the fact that I opened this book in the first place? For sure.
I am guilty - more than most - of judging books by the cover, and this one has a cover that I might not have been able to get past. It's hot pink. There's a picture of a slender white girl on the front, her back to the camera. Yes, it's the faceless girl again.
On the other hand, the typography and illustrated doodads on that cover are original and hip. A key, a bird, some vine-y floral stuff - despite the fact that it seems like EVERY teen girl novel is embellished with vine-y floral stuff right now, the vine-y floral stuff in invisible i manages to look classy and fresh. That, as it turns out, is because it was drawn by a young man by the name of Brian Floca (Moonshot, Lightship).
And this, dear friends, is the crux of my review. You can put together a book whose premise has been done before, load it up with ancillaries and gimmicks, clothe it in hot pink and put a faceless girl on the cover, and if the writer is amazing and the web designers are the best and the illustrator is multi-award-winning Brian Floca, you will have a fantastic book.
The Amanda Project shows us how it's done.
Amanda Valentino is that outsider girl with the funky fashion sense that every high school has. Nobody knows where she came from, nobody knows what she does when she cuts class, and then one day she's gone. We had one. Her name was Anne Taylor, and with a name like that, Googling her is just not worth the trouble. But Anne told me about the Rocky Horror Show, encouraged me to wear my mother's old Beatnik clothes, and got me to cut class for the first time. As we drove off the school lot in her 1972 VW Beetle, headed for downtown, I had a sense of freedom and power that was entirely new to me.
Amanda does the same kind of things for her friends, Nia, Hal, and Callie, opening their eyes to beauty and potential, quoting everyone from John Lennon to Jean-Baptiste Karr. But she's so mysterious that, after she's gone, her friends discover that not only did none of them know where she lived or who she lived with, they didn't even know about each other. It is left to them to overcome their social differences and work together to find Amanda, at first prompted by a nasty school administrator who seems to have an axe to grind - Amanda vandalized his car before disappearing - and then with an increasing sense of urgency, as the clues she is leaving lead to more and more serious conclusions and consequences.
Our narrator in this first book is Callie, part of the school's mean girl clique and hiding a couple dark secrets of her own. Callie's motivations and passivity are enfolded within the plot, as is the gradual widening of her perspective until she makes a giant, brave leap that puts her firmly on the side of the good guys. The other main characters, Hal and Nia, are further down on the social ladder, and will make good narrators in the next two books, but it is a challenging choice to give us Callie first. If she weren't written with such authority and insight, her insecurity and occasional cowardice intact, this book would never make it with teen readers.
There is already a core group of obsessed fans on The Amanda Project website, avidly unraveling new clues and writing their own characters into the story. I love that. And once again, having an interactive website that accompanies a book is getting to be pretty common, but this one is unusually good. Active, updated, well-designed and readable, it contains plenty of incentive to visit, to connect, and to contribute.
The content here is suitable for people as young as twelve or thirteen, and engaging enough for older teens and adults. The drama and mystery are serious, the dialogue is amusing and sharp, and the suspense is addictive. And the faceless girl on the cover? For once, that's exactly what should be on the cover!